A Japanese taxi
Featured image: JahnmitJa/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

Not so intelligent?

ChatGPT is all the rage, but does it live up to our expectations? And are our expectations realistic?

Koen Smets
8 min readFeb 3, 2023


I remember my first trip to Japan in the 1990s. I had worked all over Europe, and being fortunate enough to speak a few languages, most of the time I had been able to get at least some sense from notices, menus and other various written material. My British colleagues, in contrast, were usually entirely out of their depth, whether we were in Portugal, Austria, Italy or Sweden. But in Tokyo, I quickly discovered what that must have felt like for them. Even after a week, the furthest I got was that I was able to recognize the same combinations of two or three characters on the doors of vans and taxis. But I had no idea what they meant.

I was like an unwitting participant in a real-life Chinese Room experiment (albeit in Japan). This thought experiment, conceived by philosopher John Searle, hypothesizes a computer program that behaves as if it understands Chinese: in response to a string of Chinese characters as input, it produces another string of Chinese signs as output, in such a way that it passes the Turing test (i.e., what it produces is indistinguishable from what a human would). A human could use computer program’s instructions in the same way, to respond to a string of Chinese signs with another string of Chinese characters. Even though it appears as if the computer program, or the human using it, understand Chinese, neither do, Searle argued. Maybe, if I had stayed long enough in Japan to learn many more such patterns of characters from perusing Japanese papers and books, I might have been able to construct rules similar to the computer’s, and appear to understand Japanese.

Intelligent bullshit

Chinese script showing instructions how to respond to a given input
This is how easy it is to (pretend to) know Chinese! (photo: via YouTube)

John Searle described the Chinese room in 1980, presumably not expecting that he would live to see the kind of computer program actually to come into existence. Yet, here we are: , the “intelligent chatbot” launched at the end of 2022, has caused a great deal of interest and commotion. (If you have not yet tried it out, give it a go — it is quite spectacular.)



Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius